Apopka’s favorite nature trail turns four

From the St. John’s River Water Management District

There is a mystery surrounding the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. It exists in our imagination as we take the slow drive around each twist and turn of this natural masterpiece.

“Was that an alligator?”

“No, just a tree stump in the water.”

“What about over there?”

“Looks like one to me!”

“Wow, a real-life alligator swimming right beside us, and another sunning himself on the bank.”

“Wait, is that a bobcat hiding in the cattails?”

The mysteries, both revealed and hidden, never end on this journey through a true slice of Old Florida.

Just four years after the St. Johns River Water Management District opened the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, more than 100,000 visitors a year enjoy exploring it. To commemorate the drive’s 4th anniversary, on Saturday, May 4th from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m Orange Audubon Society volunteers will be stationed at key spots along the Wildlife Drive. Volunteers will share views through spotting scopes, help with bird identification, and inform visitors how to best see alligators, turtles, otters, raccoons, snakes, coyotes and bobcats.

The increasingly popular Wildlife Drive is in the eastern part of the Lake Apopka North Shore managed by the District. Once part of Lake Apopka, the 20,000-acre area was diked off and drained and put into agricultural production. The farms were acquired by the District between 1996 and 2001 with the goal of reducing nutrient-rich discharges to the lake. In addition to protecting water quality, these lands provide water storage and critical wetland functions. The 11-mile one-way drive was carefully designed to traverse existing farm levees to provide optimal wildlife viewing opportunities.

The drive is open on days that District staff and contractors are not carrying out Lake Apopka restoration work. Open days are Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and most federal holidays. Any day of the week visitors have access to hike or bicycle the 18-mile Lake Apopka Loop Trail, entering from Magnolia Park (trail entrance currently closed due to levee improvements), the McDonald Canal/North Shore Trailhead, Clay Island Trailhead, and the Green Mountain Trailhead. Detailed maps are available at the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive gate, at each trail access point, and on the District website.

“With such a large wetland area associated with an enormous lake in the middle of the Florida peninsula, birds migrating north and south in spring and fall easily find it,” said Deborah Green, Orange Audubon Society president and Wildlife Drive enthusiast. “Birders are excited to see Pectoral Sandpipers, that breed in the high Arctic, or Bobolinks, that breed in midwest grasslands, as they pass through over a period of weeks in fall and spring. Eight species of ducks that breed in the prairie pothole region of the western U.S. and Canada winter here on the Lake Apopka North Shore. Right now these ducks and coots have already taken off for their northern breeding grounds, but Black-necked Stilts that winter in South America are back for their breeding season. We have our showy year-round residents, like the herons, egrets, and gallinules, and every year have “rarities,” birds that are off course in migration or otherwise out of range. Every few years a real rarity is found, like the Fork-tailed Flycatcher from South America, that brings in birders from all over.”

Over 370 species of birds have been sighted over the years, more than any inland site in the U.S. including the Everglades. The Lake Apopka North Shore has been designated an American Bird Conservancy Globally Important Bird Area, a National Audubon Society State Important Bird Area, an Audubon Florida Special Place, and is on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. In the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s online program in which birders record their sightings, the Lake Apopka North Shore is now the top eBird hotspot in Florida.

“When newcomers first visit, they are most impressed with the alligators, but soon fascination with the birds begins,” said Green. “Fantastic photography is coming out of the Wildlife Drive, and as the photographers post their identified photos on Facebook, others are attracted to visit and take their own photos.” In addition to the Facebook pages and Facebook groups, informative brochures developed by the District and Friends of Lake Apopka, the District’s self-guided audio tour, and Orange Audubon Society’s educational kiosks with QR code links to web information help visitors to identify the wildlife and understand the lake restoration process.

We’re proud of the drive’s success and the incredible educational opportunity it offers residents and visitors,” said St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle.

Any weekend throughout the year, you can see many out-of-state plates on the Wildlife Drive, showing that birders and nature photographers have learned of it, and these people buy gas and supplies, eat in restaurants, and stay locally, which brings in ecotourism dollars. Having this as a free place for families to get out and enjoy nature not only raises the quality of life for Orange County residents, but it also raises real estate values as well.

The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is open year-round between sunrise and an hour before sunset on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and most federal holidays. There is no cost to visit. The one-way drive begins at 2850 Lust Road in Apopka and exits onto Jones Avenue in Zellwood. Due to its popularity and limited pullover opportunities, visitors are recommended to allow over two hours to go through. There are limited places to park and walk. See www.sjrwmd.com/recreation for maps and more information and https://www.facebook.com/pg/lakeapopkawildlifedrive for photos.

On Saturday, May 4th between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. bring your family and friends and stop by Orange Audubon Society’s stations along the drive with your bird questions, take a peek through a spotting scope, and discuss and share enthusiasm for the Lake Apopka North Shore with Audubon’s volunteers.

See which mysteries you and your family can see on the slow drive through Apopka’s favorite nature trail.

Orange Audubon Society is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and a chapter of both National and Florida Audubon Societies. It has been in existence for 52 years and is the 2nd largest Audubon chapter in Florida with members throughout Central Florida. Orange Audubon Society partners with and supports the St. Johns River Water Management District in educational efforts on the North Shore.

Photo by Joyce Stefancic

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